Star Trek Into Darkness

Review by Paul A. Zuckerman

Star Trek, the Original Series

One would hardly expect that a television show with middling ratings that was cancelled over 45 years ago could spawn an empire. Or have had much of a cultural impact. But Star Trek, of which Star Trek Into Darkness (STID) is the latest installment in the Gene Roddenberry created-world, has certainly done both. The original series (known now as ST-TOS) initially aired in 1966 and was the first serious, non-anthology science fiction television series that appealed to both adults and kids.

Star Trek influenced the space program and encouraged many to enter careers in that field as well as other areas of science. In fact, one of the space shuttles was named after the Enterprise! In addition, its characters were role models for minorities and women, and even early flip cell phones were modeled after the Star Trek communicators. Billed to the network green-lighters as Wagon Train to the Stars, the original Star Trek was instead a vehicle for Roddenberry to tell entertaining, thought-provoking, literate stories using themes that would have been controversial in any other context.

Roddenberry did not envision a utopia; but he postulated a world where people had learned to live together, ignoring race, religion, color, and other differences that had always divided humanity. It wasn’t that people had suddenly lost all the traits, good and bad, that have always defined humanity—they still loved, exhibited jealousy, felt fear—but, rather, they had simply been able to start getting along with each other. With rare exceptions (and despite the civil rights movement being in full swing), a multi-cultured and multi-racial world was not depicted on TV or the movies in the mid—sixties.

But, with a half-Vulcan aboard, and truly alien looking life forms at every port, the differences between humans seemed increasingly meaningless. Moreover, this was a world that seemed to have eliminated poverty—no one ever stole for lack of money. And people never seemed to be wanting for health care either. It was a world built on an optimistic premise - the promise that science and technology would improve the human condition.

When Captain Kirk began his five-year mission on the Enterprise to explore new worlds, to boldly go where no man had gone before, the Earth was united under one peace-loving

*Note in the pre-woman’s movement era, women were still included in the general “man” category. Interestingly, in the original pilot, the then captain, Pike, had a right-hand man, Number One, who was a woman, but network execs axed the idea and instead were more comfortable having a half-alien as the next-in command. Go figure! Only in the ‘80s, with consciousness raised, it became “no one” had gone before and in the ‘90s, a woman finally assumed command of a star ship.

government, and joined with other worlds in the Federation. Reflecting the cold war era, the main enemy was an alien militaristic race, the Klingons. Kirk’s brother was killed by the Klingons, so there is no love lost between them. (Eventually, Kirk becomes the emissary to negotiate with the Klingons and an uneasy peace develops.) Telling exciting, sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous adventures, Star Trek challenged the viewer’s preconceptions and prejudices

And Star Trek was rooted in science—not fantasy. Yes, many of the concepts in Star Trek would likely bend the laws of nature as we know them and thus transporters, faster than light speed, may well sadly remain in the realm of fiction. But, whereas in fantasy—such as Star Wars—events occur mystically or without explanation—everything in Star Trek could be explained within the (mostly) consistent rules of its universe. What Star Trek said was that humanity could literally reach for the stars.

The show was cancelled twice—the first time, a grassroots letter-writing campaign saved the show (my letter was one of them!) for another half season, before Star Trek was finally given the boot.

And so it may have remained. A cartoon series ran briefly in the early 1970s with the original cast, but several attempts to revive a live-action show failed until Star Wars hit the multiplex. Star Trek, like a phoenix, was reborn, as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (ST-TMP—well, that’s what it is known as, but, in fact, the movie title really is just Star Trek.) The original cast all came back to resume their roles, and the Enterprise continued its voyages through another five adventures.

Meanwhile, a new “next generation” TV series proved to be popular, and, when the original cast was deemed to have become too long in the tooth, the next generation took over for four more movies, the first of which co-featured Captain Kirk. Three more TV series followed, including one that showed the early days of the Federation. And then, the whole thing ground to a halt, other than novels (including several by William Shatner himself) and comic books.

Although never in the Star Wars class of mega-popularity, Star Trek continued to have a loyal following, both Trekkers and Trekkies (and if you don’t know the difference, then you are probably the latter. ? Science-fiction fans can be very elitist—note, not “sci-fi” fans—a term which makes hard core SF fans shudder.) Hence, it was only a matter of time before Star Trek

*As long-time fans know, the “original” cast was not fully formed in the first season—many of the characters became regulars over time, and Mr. Chekov wasn’t even seen until the second season. Also, there were a few other crew members, like Nurse Chapel, that appeared regularly but was never considered to be one of the magnificent seven — Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.

would be revived. None of the later TV shows had reached the level of popularity to move into movies, so instead the decision was made to tell new adventures of the original crew—Captain Kirk and his merry men (and women).
This, of course, presented potential pitfalls. Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and the others have engrained themselves into the American consciousness through the original series and endless reruns and the movies that followed; the characters personalities were informed by the actors that had portrayed them so that it became difficult to separate the two. Moreover, the fans would not have accepted simply ignoring the entire Star Trek canon as if it had never happened.

The 2009 Star Trek movie (Let’s call it ST-R for reboot) tried to have its feet in both camps. By establishing an alternative timeline, the new movies were free to create a new continuity. Although it is not totally clear whether the original timeline was completely obliterated or merely a new timeline was created (a very common science-fiction theme), the presence of Nimoy as the old Spock gave both comfort to fans and continuity. Apparently, it didn’t turn off new fans, and thus the new versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov live again.

Star Wars Into Darkness

Viewers of this new film will fall largely into one of three groups---those who have been living under a rock for the last 45 years, or are fairly young, and have somehow managed to completely have missed Star Trek. These viewers have no preconceptions about the characters or the Star Trek universe, other than possibly ST-R. Then there are the casual fans who have seen the movies and/or ST-TOS, or one of the later series, particularly the Next Generation (ST-TNG), but who don’t care or don’t remember all the details. Then, of course, there are the serious fans, some of whom can tell you what planet Gorn came from and who have studied every bit of ST lore.

I will note, for the record, that I fall somewhere between two and three—having seen each episode of ST-TOS many times over the decades, from the original run, syndication and/or DVD; as well as the movies, and Enterprise; but having only seen some of ST-TNG and none of the other two series, Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek Deep Space Nine. A little bit of ST lore is a dangerous thing to remember!

So, with my credentials established, I shall endeavor to approach the movie from all three perspectives. However, my task is daunting because there are a number of surprise twists in the movie that often have a meaning within the context of the movie, but also have added significance and context to long-time fans. So, in this review, I am being careful not to provide any spoilers. I hate when people give away the fact that the main villain is really K------- {censored}. I am nothing if not helpful.

I start with the title and must say that I don’t like it. It just sits there and doesn’t have—I don’t know, that je ne sais quoi that titles should have. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (ST-TWOK, the second ST movie) - now that was a title! Apparently, someone felt that the colon was a marketing negative, so they left it out. The producers also wisely figured that it would be confusing attaching a number to the movie since, after all, this is the second of the reboots but there was already a ST II, and ST 12 would have been REALLY confusing.

For those who are ST novices—STID is markedly improved over ST-R. The cast has grown more comfortable in their roles and there is more time for developing the story since there no longer a need to establish the alternative universe. (Although the cameo appearance of a certain character who appears in the end will be utterly confusing to anyone who hasn’t seen the first movie, and is completely extraneous to anyone not familiar with the earlier ST movies). The special effects are state of the art, and, although I did not see a 3D version, it seemed to me that the movie would look amazing in that format. The story has sufficient time to develop a fairly complicated plot, and actually takes significant rests between the action, allowing the audience to breathe, something that cannot be said for many action movies these days.

The movie has a huge cast of regulars, and manages to give most of them a decent amount of screen time, while adding at least one new character in Alice Eve, who looks as if she will be along for the ride in future movies. Spock’s alien nature is explored and you get to see multiple sides of his complex personality. Kirk is faced with several ethical dilemmas and he makes the moral choices that are too often not made in action/adventure movies these days. More importantly, in the first movie Kirk is immature and takes too many chances. He ignores the rules for no apparent reason. He seemed as if he was playing captain instead of being the captain. In this movie, he takes the first steps toward maturity and begins to realize the burden on his shoulders. Finally, there is a great villain in the person of Benedict Cumberbatch, known to many as Sherlock Holmes in the current British production Sherlock.

Although the film breaks no new ground, those new to ST who like science fiction should enjoy the movie. The casual fans may be still be somewhat put off by the new cast. Chris Pine has the hardest task, since he has to make Captain Kirk his own character, and not seem merely an imitation of William Shatner, and Pine largely succeeds. While Shatner will forever own Kirk, Pine provides an alternative interpretation, and, as Kirk is given a chance to mature in this movie, Pine provides a rounded performance.

While Zachary Quinto is made up to look a lot like Nimoy and makes a decent Spock, he still lacks the Nimoy’s gravitas. It is also still somewhat disconcerting seeing Spock in a romance with Uhura. Though, Spock’s father does marry an Earth woman; Spock himself always kept to himself. Nonetheless, Quinto, aided by the Vulcan make-up, does a good job handling the multiple aspects of Spock.

Chekov (Anton Yelkov) and Scotty's (Simon Pegg) accents seem almost parodies of the originals (which themselves were pretty broad). Scotty, in particular, comes across as a more humorous character than the orginal James Doohan portrayal, and not quite as much the ultra-capable chief engineer that keeps the Enterprise running with spit and glue. John Cho plays a capable Sulu. Unlike Chekov and Kirk, Sulu never sported an accent, which allows Cho to make Sulu a more natural character; but he is not given enough to do. Zoe Saldana is a very good and lovely Uhura and, despite the romance with Spock, her Uhura is quite a capable character, not just a Spock appendage. However, her role on the Enterprise was never clearly delineated. In ST-TOS, Uhura was the chief communications officer; here it took me a while to realize that is the reason she was given the job of communicating with some aliens.
Next to Saldana, Karl Urban as the good doctor McCoy seems to do the least to channel his predecessor, but McCoy's character is also the least developed. As the doctor, he gets screen time, but doesn't offer the clearly delineated counterpoint to Spock that the original featured. One of the essential elements of ST-TOS was the trinity of Kirk, McCoy and Spock — in many ways, three aspects of a whole. Spock was the logical one, to an extreme. Except in rare circumstances, he has exorcised his emotional Earth half. McCoy, although a doctor, was always the humanist, emotional to a fault. Kirk, despite his penchant for action and sometimes seeming impulsiveness, had to balance all sides, and reach a rational but human decision.

The three worked in tandem but it was the sparing between McCoy and Spock that provoked the ethical and philosophical discussions that always informed Star Trek. McCoy gets to utter a version of his famous line (“I’m a doctor, not a blasted ________!” - fill in the blank) but it seems almost just thrown in to delight the old fans. He rarely gets to verbally joust with Spock in this movie.

However, nitpicks aside, most casual fans will likely enjoy the movie, for the same reason as the newbies.

Finally, let’s address the more serious Star Trek fans. I enjoyed the movie more than the first reboot but agree with some who note that it is not quite Star Trek. I think of it almost as a pastiche of ST - a work of art, literature, film, music or architecture that closely imitates the work of a previous artist, usually distinguished from parody in the sense that it celebrates rather than mocks the work (Wikipedia definition). Yet, on its own terms, it mostly works.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is its willingness to so often throw logic and consistency aside for a big effect. For example, given the Enterprise is a space ship without landing gear (it was built in a space dock because gravity’s impact would likely crush it), how does it go underwater in the opening scenes of the movie? The scene was undoubtedly included to create a huge initial impact, but in a way it undermines that internal Star Trek universe that true fans cherish.

Dyed-in-the-wool Trekkers will likely scratch their heads at the illogic of things, but this movie holds together better than ST-R did. In that movie, it is established that the events in the beginning of the movie are what triggers the alternative universe — yet, later in the movie, it is clear that earlier events occurred that also deviate from the original universe. Yet, there is no explanation. Happily, most of that can be ignored here — or, at least, until you stop and think about some of the events in this movie and how they clearly deviated from the original universe at some point prior to the trigger events in ST-R. Nonetheless, the dyed-in-the-wool fan will appreciate all of the nods to the original universe and the appearance of some characters previously seen there. This movie is less a remake of what has come before and more of an alternative path. But I can say no more about that without revealing some of the movie’s sacred secrets!

Following a parallel course to certain earlier Trek exploits, STID takes major strides to be Star Trek. Although a multi-cultural and racial crew working together is no longer a radical concept, the movie deals with some moral issues and Kirk is put to the test to prove that he deserves to be captain. Spock must confront his emotions and enough is going on to ensure the movie is not just a mindless action flick.

This is, after all Star Trek. Old fans will appreciate seeing the original uniforms (albeit slightly modified) and the original Enterprise. In addition, the phasers (set to stun!) and communication devices resemble those on the original show, not the later versions. This movie is an interesting mixture of retro and high tech, homage and new. More than the ST-R, the film strives to capture some of the spirit that motivated the original series. Long-time fans that can put aside the inconsistencies should enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness.

In rebooting the franchise, the producers have gotten more on the Star Trek track, pleasing both the long-time fans and those new to Star Trek. Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun ride into the final frontier.

************************************************************************************* SPOILERS AHEAD:
To be read only by those who have seen the movie!

The revelation that the main villain is actually Khan will have little significance to anyone not familiar with Star Trek history, but the opposite holds true for those who are. When John Harrison is revealed to be Khan, someone new to Star Trek is likely to go, so what? Who is Khan? The character has no particular back story within the new universe and the revelation doesn’t affect how Kirk and company view Khan.

Here again the logic of the new universe, splitting off from the events of ST-R, is put to the test. In the original universe, Kirk and crew meet Khan and his people in suspended animation in a ship deep in space while on the original five-year mission and Khan is defeated and exiled by Kirk to an uninhabited world. It is some 20 or so years later when events unfold that allows Khan to escape the planet and seek revenge against Kirk. It is those events in ST-TWOF that are reconfigured in STID. But Khan ‘s original reign was from before the events that triggered the alternative universe. By rights, he should have been in deep space, not at a location where he could be brought to earth. And, whereas Ricardo Montalban featured an indeterminate look that allowed him to portray someone named Khan, the obviously English Benedict Cumberbatch does not.

The other significant character from ST-TWOF that appears in STID is Carol Wallace, who is revealed to really be Carol Marcus. Within the movie, the big revelation works better than the Khan revelation, because it discloses her to be the daughter of Admiral Marcus, who himself is revealed to be the true enemy. But, for those familiar with Star Trek lore, the revelation has possibly a more significant meaning, since, in ST-TWOF, Carol is revealed to be the mother of Kirk’s only child. She and Kirk had a romantic tryst early on, and were now meeting some 25 or so years later. We never got to see the young Carol in the original universe.

In ST-TWOF, it is Spock who sacrifices himself, observing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. In STID, Kirk expresses the very same sentiment when he sacrifices himself in essentially the same manner as Spock did in the earlier movie. Yet, as shown in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (ST-TSFS), Kirk believes the opposite—he sacrifices much (including, as it turns out, his own son) to save his friend, declaring that sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. As the captain of the ship, it would seem that he would usually have to sacrifice one for the many. (Earlier in STID, Kirk’s actions, however, do put the crew at risk to save Spock.)

In the movie, Kirk originally wants revenge against Khan for the death of Admiral Pike but his moral compass eventually brings him to the realization that he should not murder Khan but rather bring him back for justice. Kirk decides to do the right thing, despite his own misgivings. Spock, on the other hand, is different. When he seeks revenge against Khan, his emotions are unleashed. That Spock has emotions has been explored before in Star Trek; he is not emotionless by nature but by choice. But, like many others who keep their emotions repressed, when Spock explodes it is with a bang. Ultimately, his decision not to kill Khan is not motivated by what is right and what is wrong, as is Kirk’s decision, but rather by the simple cold logic that Khan is needed alive in order to save Kirk. Spock’s logical side wins out over his emotional side again, but the difference in motivations between the two characters is a telling point.